Uzhhorod Modernism

The Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod is little known internationally. A provincial centre with a population of some 115,000, it is located to the east of interwar Czechoslovakia in Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, a region that briefly enjoyed a higher profile in 1939 as the short-lived Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine, one of the many ‘vanished kingdoms’ of which Norman Davies has so eloquently written.[1] Yet while it may, for many, merely be a footnote in the history books, consideration of the past of Uzhhorod throws an illuminating light on political events in central Europe, their intertwining with art and architecture, and their continuing significance for the present.

Founded sometime in the eighth century, the city developed into a significant trading town after the Mongol depradations of the 1240s. Historically it was known as Ungvár, the ‘castle by the Ung,’ the Hungarian name for the river Uzh that gives it its modern name. This reflected the predominantly Hungarian population of the town, and until 1918 it was situated at the north-east corner of Hungary. The collapse of Austria-Hungary and Tsarist Russia brought about the redrawing of political boundaries, and even though President Woodrow Wilson championed national self-determination at Versailles, this principle did not extend to the defeated powers. Hence, despite the ethnicity of the city and the surrounding region, Ungvár became Užhorod (the name is a translation of the Hungarian), capital of Subcarpathian Ruthenia, the easternmost territory of newly created Czechoslovakia. It remained as such until November 1938 when, following the Munich agreement, it was ‘awarded’ to Hungary in the so-called First Vienna Agreement. Later, in March 1939, Germany annexed the remainder of Bohemia and Moravia, and the independent Slovak state was created. In response, the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine was declared, with its capital at Khust. Lasting just one day, it was occupied by Hungary (along with the rest of the province) until, in the aftermath of the Second World War, it was absorbed into Ukraine and, consequently, the Soviet Union. It has since been known by its Ukrainian name, transliterated as Uzhhorod. Its population is now predominantly Ukrainian, too.

Uzhhorod presented the interwar government of Czechoslovakia with a number of challenges. The identity of its inhabitants meant that they had few reasons for loyalty to the new state; Prague was part of a distant culture with which they had little in common, in terms of culture, language or religion. In addition, it was perhaps the economically least developed province of the Czechoslovakia. It had one or two towns of note – as well as Užhorod it could count Mukačevo, birthplace of the celebrated Hungarian painter Mihály Munkácsy (1844–1900) – but it was mostly agricultural with no extensive modern industries. Hence, whereas the other territories of Czechoslovakia enjoyed considerable autonomy, Sub-Carpathian Rus was ruled directly from Prague, as evidence of a desire to maintain control over a remote part of the country. It was also subject to a programme of modernisation, which included, alongside the provision of roads and transport infrastructure, urban construction projects that were meant to endow Uzhhorod with the facilities of a modern city. This included banks, schools, apartment blocks, a reservoir, the building of the new regional administration, a post office.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Alois Dryák: The Provisional Administration Building, Uzhhorod, 1926 – photo: Andrii Charchalis, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

It is here that the intertwining of architecture and politics becomes evident, for such provision symbolised the identity of the new state of which Uzhhorod was now part. The majority of the architects, such as Alois Dryák, Josef Gočár, František Krupka and František Šrámek were Czechs from Prague. Indeed, many of them had studied in pre-war Vienna, thus maintaining a link with the former Habsburg Empire. It is thus not an exaggeration to say that Uzhhorod was colonised by the Czechoslovak authorities. Czechs may have fond historical memories of the region (it was also, as again today, a picturesque tourist destination), but more critical studies have drawn attention to the high-handed and paternalistic attitudes of the Prague-based political, social and cultural elites towards their new ‘acquisition.’ This included the fact, for example, that Hungarian-speaking local officials were replaced by Czech-speakers who were imported from the West.[2] The visual arts were no exception to this pattern. Prague-based art critics tended to view Uzhhorod and the surrounding land in equally patronising terms, and it was visible in the policy of bringing modern urbanism and architecture to this ‘backward’ province.[3] Lest this be seen as a very contemporary perception, criticisms were being voiced by Czech intellectuals even in the 1930s of the imperialist attitudes of the government.[4]

Figure 2

Figure 2. L’udovit Oelschläger: City Cinema and Library, Uzhhorod, 1932. Historic postcard courtesy of Lina Dehtyaryova and Oleg Olashyn

The design of many of the buildings provides ample evidence of the association between design and Czech national politics. Alois Dryák’s provisional building of the regional administration (Figure 1) is an example of what used to be termed ‘Rondocubism’ but which has, in recent years, come to be called the ‘national style.’ Using a vocabulary of simple geometrical ornamental elements, this was the short-lived project of the early 1920s to create an architectural language that was expressive of a modern Czech national identity.[5]

Other buildings were emblematic of the wish to integrate Uzhhorod into the larger project of building Czechoslovak state, such as the city cinema and library (Figure 2; 1932) designed by the Slovak L’udovit Oelschläger (1896-1984), a native of Košice who was also known as the Hungarian Lajos Őry, a testament to the ethnically mixed region of eastern Czechoslovakia. By the time the cinema was built, the national style had fallen out of favour; instead, the building reveals an engagement with European functionalism. Oehlschläger also designed the new Jewish school (Figure 3; 1926). With its Solomonic columns at the front and its ornamental castellations around the top, this might at first sight seem to contradict the image of the architect as contributing to modernisation of the city, except that the school stands in opposition to the synagogue built only 20 years earlier in 1904, an orientalising Moorish revival building that strengthened the widespread perception of Jews as exotic and backward (Figure 4).

Figure 3

Figure 3. L’udovit Oelschläger: Jewish Public School, Uzhhorod, 1926 – photo: Uzhhorod Tourist Agency

Given its architectural heritage, one can only welcome the launch of Uzhhorod Modernism, an online research project in English and Ukrainian devoted to documenting and mapping the interwar modernist architecture of the city. Similar to the longer established Brno Architectural Manual, it provides profiles of individual buildings and architects, as well as a map of the city marking the location of the structures in question. It also indicates the builders and engineers involved although, at the time of writing, has yet to provide information on these.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Gyula Papp and Ferenc Szabolcs: The Synagogue, Uzhhorod, 1904 – photo: fortepan.hu

Uzhhorod Modernism is part of a wider historical reflection that has taken place over the last 30 years in Central and East-Central Europe since the collapse of Communism. It has played a role in the process of self-identification in the post-Soviet era and, as such, enters potentially controversial territory. In 2002 a monument was erected to Tomáš Masaryk, and this was part of a wider commemoration of the first Czechoslovak president; there is also a Masaryk park and a Masaryk bridge. The monument was based on a sculpture that had originally been designed in 1927 by Olena Mondičová / Helena Mandičová (1902-1975), a graduate of the Academy of Art and Design in Prague (Figure 5). Given that the monument had been removed in 1939 when Uzhhorod came under Hungarian rule, this rediscovery of links to Masaryk and Czechoslovakia was not a politically neutral act.

Figure 5

Figure 5. Monument to Tomáš Masaryk, Uzhhorod, 2002. Based on a design by Olena Mondičová / Helena Mandičová, 1927 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, one can view it as a sign of Ukrainians to redefine themselves in a time of crisis. Ever since it attained independence in 1991, Ukraine sought to emerge from under the shadow of Russia, and since the 2014 revolution this project has taken on a renewed urgency. The rediscovery of Uzhhorod modernism could be seen as part of the larger effort to establish the place of Ukraine in Central Europe and to distance it from the sphere of Russian influence. It is just the latest in a number of similar such enterprises, particularly in western Ukraine. Chernivtsi celebrates its former identity as Habsburg Czernowitz, above all, its rich Jewish heritage, culminating, perhaps, in its role as the birthplace of Paul Celan, one of the giants of modernist poetry. Similarly, L’viv has gained a renewed energy and profile as Lemberg, the capital of the former Habsburg crownland of Galicia, which is celebrated for, amongst other things, its extensive Secessionist architecture from the early twentieth century.[6] A leading role in this regard has been played by the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe and its numerous exhibitions and contributions to public understanding of the city’s history. Regardless of one’s view of their political motivations, projects such as Uzhhorod Modernism fulfil an important function in helping keep alive the memory of the complex history of central Europe. They also demonstrate how impermanent national boundaries have proven to be, and the ways in which changing political fortunes left their mark in cement, steel, glass and stone.

Matthew Rampley

[1] Norman Davies, ‘Rusyn: The Republic of One Day (15 March 1939)’ in Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (London, 2012) pp. 621-34.

[2] See, for example, Stanislav Holubec, ‘ “We bring order, discipline, Western European democracy and culture to this land of former oriental chaos and disorder.” Czech perceptions of Sub-Carpathian Rus and its Modernization  in the 1920s,’ in Włodzimierz Borodziej, Stanislav Holubec, Joachim von Puttkamer, eds., Mastery and Lost Illusions: Space and Time in the Modernization of Eastern and Central Europe (Munich, 2014) pp. 223-50.

[3] See Marta Filipová, ‘Identity,’ in Filipová, Modernity, History and Politics in Czech Art (London, forthcoming).

[4] Geoffrey Brown, ‘Blaming the Bourgeoisie: The Czech Left-Wing Response to Perceived Czech Imperialism in Subcarpathian Ruthenia,’ New Zealand Slavonic Journal 46 (2012) pp. 71-90.

[5] See, for example, Vendula Hnídková, ‘Rondocubism versus National Style,’ RIHA Journal 0011 (08 November 2010). URL: www.riha-journal.org/articles/2010/hnidkova-rondocubism-versus-national-style/. Accessed: 7 May 2019.

[6] Żanna Komar and Julia Bohdanova, Secesja w Lwowie / Secession in Lviv (Cracow, 2014).

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/A6G3W

Correction: A previous version of this stated that Uzhhorod was capital of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. It has now been corrected, since it was Khust. Thanks to Lina Dehtyaryova and Oleg Olashyn for pointing out the mistake.

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